“Trolling the internet” for…absolutely anything sounds terrible. But I’ve been trolling for book ideas for much longer than I’ve been building this library or writing this blog.
My sister always preferred to know as little about a movie as possible before seeing it (just the bare minimum to know that she wanted to see it). This was particularly true with comedies because of the movie industry’s tendency to ruin great surprises and use up the great jokes in the trailers. And I feel similarly about books, so I avoid reviews, book blurbs, and reading the backs of books when choosing what to read.
‘How the heck do you know what to read next?’ I’ve been asked more than once. Well, now you can see why the Feminista list and, yes, even the deeply flawed Modern Library list have been so helpful over the years – they are built-in recommendations. I can recognize a book title and pick it up from the library or used book store without having any of the story ruined for me.
But eventually I got a little restless with just these two competing lists. So I started, well, trolling around. I found Buzzfeed countdowns for banned books week. I found Refinery29 lists of “Books Every Woman Should Read.” I found a really great list of 250 essential American novels, and I’m glad I saved it to a spreadsheet (yes I did that) because I’ve been looking all over the corners of the internet to link it for you here, and it’s gone forever, I’m afraid!
While it wasn’t focused on women’s literature or even only on the 20th century, it covered a lot of books not mentioned by either of my primary lists. I discovered Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Paula Gunn Allen’s The Woman Who Owned the Shadows, and Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy through that now-lost list – all now part of the library I’m building.
When I decided to work on this project in earnest, I thought I would put together all the lists I already had into one giant spreadsheet (ok, I happen to love Excel – this is a no judgment zone, friends). I selected the American one as the starting point since, well, it was already long and already had the year of publication built into it. Starting with that one, I deleted all the men. It was liberating! And then I started adding all the women’s books from the other lists.
Well, I noticed something interesting. Some of the time periods were so flush with great books by women that I needed to insert line after line to fit it all in – the 20s-30s and the 90s in particular. But other parts of the spreadsheet where I had deleted all the guys had big stretches of blankness – mainly the 50s through the 60s. Hmmm.
My completely unscientific and untested theory is that the 1920s and 30s were a time that unprecedented numbers of women were publishing at once because, particularly in Britain, so much of the young generation had been wiped out by the Great War.
The 90s were also a time when the second wave feminism’s efforts at last began to yield dividends in practical ways in the workplace, including in publishing, so that was another great time. But in times where men were publishing heavily – say, the 60s – most “best of” lists left little room for highlighting women’s work.
I took that as a good challenge – filling in those blank lines of my spreadsheet. What books by women were being ignored during the late 40s, 50s, and 60s? Surely women who were remembered for only one book during that time published more, yes? Muriel Spark had to have written more than just The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (spoiler: she did). Were women just publishing bestsellers during the 50s, or were they writing “real” fiction that just got ignored every year in favor of John Cheever and Robert Penn Warren?
I started looking at the winners’ lists for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer for Fiction, as well as all the runners-up books. A surprising number of women were nominated for, and won, the Pulitzer for Fiction at its infancy. So I added those women to the list too. A lot of those early books have been forgotten by time, and I’m going to find out if time was right to do so or not!
My trusty spreadsheet, containing books owned and also books to be searched for, is growing by the day. My now-rearranged shelf is kept in the same order as the sheet so that I can stay as close to sane through this process as possible.
Coming up – after all this research, we finally get to go shopping! Another spoiler: I am the Imelda Marcos of used books. Stay tuned.